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Protect Yourself from Online Harassment

This newsletter is going to be a little different because I’d like your help. Lately, I’ve been receiving cringeworthy comments from strangers on my Instagram posts. The comments refer to my appearance, treat me as a sexual object, or have a violent tone. Has this happened to you, and if so, how have you handled it? I want to hear from you.

It’s disheartening but not surprising to learn that the majority of women and girls on social media have experienced some form of gender harassment. Of course, men and boys are harassed online too, but when women are targeted the harassment is more likely to become sexual or violent. It can take the form of comments or direct messages, defamation, doxxing (publishing private information), cyber exploitation (publishing intimate videos or photos), swatting (prank calls sending police to the person’s home) or crashing the woman’s account. Whatever form the harassment takes, it causes emotional and mental harm ranging from worry about a damaged reputation to fear of violence. The woman is left feeling vulnerable and stressed or traumatized.

As a result, most women censor ourselves. We go off line or stop posting content. That does not end the negative emotional or mental impact of the online harassment. Moreover, it is exactly what the harassers want. Voices are muted and the entire online community loses out by not being able to experience a greater variety of people and points of view.

So how do we address unwanted comments or harassment to prevent lasting damage to ourselves and our online community? Read on.

Identify the issue.

First, understand what's happening in your situation. Is someone disagreeing with you or personally insulting you, or are they using gendered or racist slurs or threats? If the offensive content is a disagreement or insult, you can choose to respond or let it go; there’s no harm in ignoring it. Slurs and threats are abusive behaviors that need to be addressed. For the rest of this article, I will refer to such abuse as harassment.

Document the harassment.

If you’re experiencing online harassment, document every incident as best you can. Take screenshots of comments, messages and any other information regarding the harassment. Save emails, voicemails and texts. Document the behavior before you report it, in case the harasser removes the content or the online accounts where they posted it. Presenting a person’s exact statements is more credible than paraphrasing, and saves you the trauma of having to ruminate on disturbing words and ideas. Finally, store your evidence in more than one place, including a hard copy.

Tell a friend about it.

Remember, you’re not alone. Talk to friends, family members, colleagues, and your online community about the harassment. You may be surprised to learn how many of them have experienced something similar. If you feel ashamed or humiliated by the harassment, start with someone you feel safe with; the very act of talking about the harassment will help alleviate your emotional and mental stress and give you the strength to stand up for yourself. One friend of mine engaged her online community in a discussion about the harassment she faced. She was overwhelmed with support and stories of similar abuse, which led her to create an online support group.

If the harassment involves your work and you feel physically or professionally threatened, consider reporting it to your employer. Your employer may be able to offer mental health care counseling or legal services.

Take online action.

You can block the harasser’s account so that they cannot follow you or comment on your posts. You can mute a person or post; they can still comment, but you don’t have to see it and you can report the harassment to the social platform. If their messages violate the platform’s terms of service, the company may remove specific posts or suspend the harasser’s account. Keep in mind, though, the person harassing you may escalate the abuse in response to your actions. And if you block or mute someone, you might miss something you should document. If you choose to block, mute, or report a person, ask a friend to let you know if the harasser reacts.

Or you could speak out. Speaking out against the harassment can be very empowering, but be careful how you do it. Rather than directly addressing the person who is harassing you, you could practice what is called counterspeech. Share information that rebuts what the harasser posted or names the inappropriate behavior. Invite other people to back you up. I decided to educate my harasser by posting an article about misogyny. The harasser did not respond but many other online followers did, and my post prompted a positive and lively discussion.

Evaluate your online security.

Preferably you do this before any harassment has occurred! Take good care of your passwords by creating long ones and never re-using old ones. Set up two-factor authentication wherever it is available. Don’t reveal private information (like your mother’s real maiden name) in your answers to security questions. Create clear and distinct personal and professional profiles online. If necessary, use a password manager to keep track of all your password information.

Guard your physical safety.

Has the harassment made you fear for your safety, or the safety of your family and friends? Follow your instincts: if you feel physically unsafe, consider temporarily relocating. Think about whether the harasser would be able to find you there. They might know some of your friends and family members but not others. You may want to choose a public place with no obvious connection to you, like a hotel. Contact law enforcement and make a report. If the harassment is work related, inform your manager or employer. Or reach out to a lawyer. At the very least, ask a trusted friend to help you evaluate your safety. Another perspective is always helpful. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you know the harasser and do they have a history of violent behavior?

  • Does the threat include specifics like your name, a time, a place, or type of attack?

  • Is the harasser threatening you using their real name or contact information?

  • Has the harasser changed social media platforms or moved offline with the abuse? For example, are they leaving you voicemail messages or packages at your door?

Take care of yourself.

Don’t dismiss how you’re feeling. Online harassment can make you feel embarrassed, ashamed, fearful, and exhausted! Don’t forget it is NOT your fault. Make sure you take time away from social media. Get your body up and moving. Make yourself nourishing comfort food. And get good sleep. If you’re having trouble taking care of yourself, don't hesitate to reach out to a friend, family member or a professional for help. Another place to get support is Heartmob, a website that helps people who are experiencing online harassment.

As always, use the strategies that work for you and file away the rest in case you or someone you know may need them in the future. And please write to me if you'd like to share a story of online harassment and how you handled it. Talking about it is a good thing! Take care and stay safe, Stephanie

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